Power abuse: moving beyond the dance of blame

Power abuse: moving beyond the dance of blame

By Chris Nichols, Co-Founder, GameShift

There’s a familiar story unfolding about powerful people (often, but not always, men) using their positions to harass and abuse people with less power (often, but not always, women).

The unfolding story has led to a flood of “#metoo” revelations. Shining a light on the issue has made the scale of it more visible.  It’s also led people to react with horror and, sometimes with kneejerk reactions – it’s become important to been seen to act swiftly to blame and punish anyone accused (sometimes without any due process).

This pattern of abuse and horror – a dance of secrets and revelation, outrage and blame –  is an old and familiar pattern. It is also an unproductive and partial one. It will go around and around.  Eventually the dance of horror and accusation will stop.  The news will move onto something else. The shadow will lie quietly, doing its work in the secret dark places, until it bursts into view again.

Power in all its forms brings the risk of misuse and abuse.  Some of this abuse is sexual, but it also takes many other harmful forms. The hazard of misuse is not specific to any one gender, class or colour, and none of this is entirely the responsibility of the individual in power.

There is a system in play here and we all – powerful and powerless, abused and abuser alike – are implicated in the process. Of course, nothing in this absolves the abuser in any way.  A crime is a crime; harassment and misbehaviour are still damaging and need to be stopped.

What the deeper problem does require, however, is for us to move beyond the cycle of horror, outcry and blame. That cycle changes nothing. There is a deeper problem that needs to be addressed if we are going to shift this pattern.


We love to make heroes (and villains)

We love to split.  Nothing makes us more secure than knowing we are NOT like them, whichever “them” it is.  Humans are great at creating polarities: cliques and outsiders, all-stars and also-rans. The viciousness of social media interactions today gives living proof of our willingness to side with and vilify against people we don’t know at all.

We also like to have heroes.  Pick up any magazine and see our penchant for hero-making.  We lift people onto pedestals, and with that pedestal comes power.

From politics to boardrooms, from cinema screens to celebrity magazines, we create mythical and massive superheroes.  We reward our heroes with treasures, attribute to them the wisdom of gods, and allow them massive latitudes in behaviour.  We surround them with palaces and security, mansions and entourages. We make them islands of power, visible to us only through media lenses that amplify their characteristics.

What gets missed in all this hero-making is any honest discussion about power, its use and abuse.

We each abdicate our responsibility to engage and hold those with power accountable.  We do this so that we can play the game of heroes and villains, worship our gods on-screen or online, and then rejoice when they tumble like statues of yesterday’s dictatorship.

It simplifies things. It saves us the hard work of addressing our own responsibilities.

But it comes at a terrible price.


We are all users and abusers of power

Every one of us has power.  We have it to different degrees and in different forms and we use it in many ways.  Some of us have power from our position – political or corporate power, with authority to hire and fire, to make and break careers, to make decisions that affect us all.  Others have creative power, the power of the teacher or guru’s elevated position, or the power of a particular skill or a web of influence.

Many of us crave success, and the power it brings in the form of the fame, money and other forms of “security” it brings. As a species we will do almost anything to get this. We slave for years in education. We work horrendous hours building a profession or business. Sometimes we seek it outside professional work: these dynamics may also be seen in our grasping for power in the family circle, or more subtly in claiming the power of victimhood, the power of the martyr.

Sometimes this craving puts us at risk of abuse by others with more power or different forms of power.  Sometimes the craving puts us in the position of making demands that others will find unacceptable. This risk can be sexual, but more often the abuse is wider.

Let me be specific.  When I was a New York investment banker, junior associates often slept under desks in the office.  No one told them to, they didn’t need to.  The power over the juniors was so absolute that they “willingly” sacrificed their beds to work the numbers and make sure they were picked for the next big deal.  That’s abuse of power.

It’s the same with unpaid interns.  Keen to make their mark for the possible reward of a paid job at the end of it or at least a strong reference, there is little questioning about the tasks they’re told to do and the hours they work.  Again, that’s an abuse of power.

When there’s a corporate takeover, the acquired management team (who may have been rewarded for years for pouring their passion and energy into a particular vision) often have to suddenly switch stories, change their identity and sing a new tune.  Otherwise they become a problem, an obstacle to change, yesterday’s leader to be hounded out of the business.  That’s an affront to identity and a denial of human integrity. Who honestly examines the use and abuse of power in these situations?  No one – the right of financial capital to trash humans goes unquestioned.  And that’s a form of abuse.

And it’s not just in the corporate world.

We hear more clearly the voices and stories of people most like ourselves.  We have a human habit of “disappearing and silencing” the stories of those who we see as significantly different in a way that makes them “inferior”.  If we’re brutally honest we put these “others” in a collective category that is slightly less human than ourselves.  The complaints of residents in sub-standard accommodation, the pleas of people languishing on mental health care waiting lists are examples of this. Their voices can hardly be heard. That’s a form of abuse.

The issue of systemic silence

It’s because of this last point (the disappearing of voices and stories) that sexual misconduct is a difficult problem to crack. Sometimes people know (rumours circulate, doubts exist) but the overwhelming power of the person involved silences everyone, becomes a blinker.

Other times the power runs even deeper. The abuse isn’t seen because its very existence is invisible and unspeakable. The entire shared cognitive apparatus of an organisation can become constructed so that an issue is literally never seen. There is copious cognitive psychological evidence about our human ability to have selective vision. It is often an unexamined control, hidden within the deep organisational thinking and processes, that lies behind many major abuses from Saville to Enron, from inappropriate fondling to the harm done by driven cultures.

The abuse is literally unspeakable because to speak it is not within the cognitive frame of the society or organisation to see or hear it. The behaviour concerned may even be lauded and applauded: when heroic leaders win, they get away with almost anything. Some entertainment and media organisations talk about “BAFTA Bastards” – award winning talent that can flout the codes so long as the awards are won and recognition gained.

Mostly it isn’t sexual abuse, rather it takes the form of driven management style leaving teams in tears. But make no mistake, feeling “entitled” to demand inappropriate sexual favours lies on the same power continuum as tantrums, unreasonable demands and corporate jets.

None of this requires a conspiracy or any conscious action, it just requires power and its implications to be unexamined. Unless we address this wider issue of how power really works we will stay stuck in this dance of abuse and horror.


What can we do beyond blaming?

Let’s be clear, when crimes are committed they need to be investigated and where appropriate punished.  But pursuing criminality won’t shift the deeper issue around power and misuse.

What can we do to shift this game?

I am a Trustee in a field where there is a high risk of abuse – psychotherapy and the training of therapists.  In the intimacy of therapy, clients often become attracted to their therapist.  Students also can easily be attracted to the authority figure of the teacher or lecturer, a relationship that has both the aura of wisdom and the reward based power of exams and marking.

Here there is a clear recognition of this dynamic and some very clear practices to address the issue. Much work has been done around “sex in the forbidden zone”, and all therapy institutes and most educational bodies have guidelines and processes to protect everyone involved.

Similar dynamics exist in spiritual communities – and they take steps to address such power issues directly. One of my favourite sets of such guidelines is from a centre in Berkley, USA. There is a clear statement of awareness about power and the possibility for abuse:

“We acknowledge that difficulties may arise among members related to power differentials. Differences of race, gender, sexual orientation and physical disability require particular awareness and sensitivity”.

The statement goes on to make very clear the standards and procedures that are in place. Here is the link to the page http://berkeleyzencenter.org/ethics-guidelines/

What is so powerful about this is its openness. It starts not with a statement about blame, but with an acknowledgment of difficulties because of power differentials, into which we all may stray.  The ethics guidelines acknowledge that things are not always clear and that experiences must be heard. It provides a group to ensure such a hearing – the HEAR Committee.

The recognition of our shared humanity runs right through the process. It says that the committee exists first and foremost to provide guidance. Members of the community have the code of ethics, but are encouraged to approach the committee openly for guidance on their conduct, or with concerns about the conduct of others.

The committee is required to be involved in any cases of sexual misconduct or harassment – but also in a wide range of other ethical misconducts including misuse of power for personal gain, and in cases of incompetence that threatens the community.

The guidelines recognise that “desires of all kinds are part of life” and that, in the intimacy of the work, “confusion regarding sexuality, power and confidentiality may arise” in ways that do harm to those involved and to the community.

People in power (such as teachers and community leaders) undertake to abide by the precepts of the community, which exclude sexual contact with other members. The responsibility for compliance lies squarely with the senior person, be they priest or lay leader.  Should that leader nonetheless seek a sexual relationship with a community member, there is a process for exploration, guidance and remedial or disciplinary action.


Recognising our humanity

What is admirable about this process is that it is robust and rigorous whilst recognising our humanity.  It doesn’t say anyone is evil, but it does say we each have responsibility.  We are subject to desires and we can be led into difficulty by them.  Instead it encourages – come early with your difficulties and ethical distress, seek guidance, get support.

This is very different from denying desires – acting as if only evil men have desires and then reacting in horror when bad stories emerge.  Far better to admit that desire is inevitable and universal, and that it gets mixed up with power dynamics in ways that can be abusive. It then provides guidelines, processes to support the safety of all involved.


Building the skill to address the issue

There is a level of support and skill needed here that is often lacking in organisational settings.  Leaders can rarely own up to any weakness at all, yet our unwillingness to allow leaders to be weak and vulnerable is part of a pact with the devil that ends with rape on the casting couch.  All of us get things wrong, all of us need challenge.

This is where the role of supervision and peer-to-peer fierce conversations comes into the mix.

Supervision is the regular and rigorous examination of one’s intentions and actions in the presence of a trained and independent person. It is often mistaken as a “checking up” – this is wrong.  Supervision is a deep learning process akin to having a rigorously honest mirror held up to your actions.  It is a source of self-awareness and insight and a powerful catalyst for better standards and new thinking. In our view all leaders should be part of a supervision relationship as part of their learning about how to work with awareness and skill within the clear ethical framework of their organisation.

Coupled with this, having a group of peers willing to tell you the truth is vital. This is very different to a posse of yes-men paid to hide your mistakes and bury your skeletons. We make Practice Applications Groups – a form of action inquiry peer group – core to our work; we speak of it being a group of colleagues willing to act as your fiercest critics in support of your learning and wiser action.

The potential for creating healthy communities and healthier leadership is massive.

To start it off requires each one of us as leaders to take personal responsibility for owning and owning up to our own shadow, our dark side. We all need to acknowledge that we are flawed and vulnerable, that we all have a tendency to use power to play out needs and anxieties of our own personality – and that we need the guidance of an ethics code and the counsel of others to help us be our best.


A cure for sexual misconduct won’t appear from the blame game

Sexual intercourse, said Philip Larkin, began in 1963. Perhaps this was not entirely accurate.  It’s similarly inaccurate to predict that sexual misconduct is going to be fixed due to the disclosures and horrors of 2017.

But we can start right now to be open and intelligent in how we deal with it.

This means recognising that we are all capable of misusing power. Recognising that sex is just one of the abuses – and that the abuses are related and at the root lies our fear, anxieties and unspoken desires.

We can create communities of awareness and rigorous processes to guard against abuse.  We cannot delegate this to the law, as an abstraction.  We cannot delegate this anywhere.  It is up to all of us to play our part in making the organisations and the ethics we want to live by.

We need rigour and sophistication in our practices to allow all of us to step into the work.

CN, November 2017


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Philippa Hardman, Co-Founder of GameShift, and Siobhan Sheridan for conversations, critique and contributions in the preparation of this article.